Federal Issues update 4/11/2014
Ahead of a two-week congressional recess, House and Senate appropriators were busy in recent days with various appropriations-related activities. In addition to a series of budget oversight hearings, the House Appropriations Committee approved provisional spending levels – known as 302(b) allocations – for the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) and Legislative Branch funding bills.
Although Democrats expressed displeasure with the fact that GOP committee leaders had used “interim” spending allocations for the legislation, the bills were approved by the panel on voice votes. Incidentally, the MilCon-VA and Legislative Branch measures are generally considered the least controversial of the annual spending measures.
Next up for the House Appropriations Committee will be the fiscal year 2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) spending bill. The CJS Appropriations Subcommittee has tentative plans to mark up the legislation on May 8.
Looking ahead, the road for the appropriations process could become more challenging as lawmakers prepare to delve into some of the more contentious spending bills. For their part, a group of conservative Republicans have vowed to use the appropriations process to showcase ideological differences between the two parties in advance of this November’s elections.
In a related development, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) released last week his fiscal year 2015 budget blueprint, which proposes to balance the budget over the next decade through a series of spending cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other social safety net programs. Under the proposal, discretionary spending allocations would conform to the $1.014 trillion top-line funding level set by last year’s budget deal (PL 113-67). However, over the next 10 years, the Ryan budget would increase defense spending by $483 billion, while nondefense discretionary programs would be cut by $791 billion.
After rejecting five alternatives, the full House adopted the Ryan budget (H Con Res 96) on a 219-205 vote. Twelve Republicans joined every Democrat in voting against the measure. Despite House passage, a final budget resolution will not be adopted by Congress, as Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) is not writing a fiscal year 2015 blueprint. In Murray’s view, the spending levels included in the recent two-year budgetary framework forged between her and Chairman Ryan should guide the fiscal year 2015 appropriations process.
In other news, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) made a series of remarks this week regarding the prospects for a congressional overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee – the panel with primary jurisdiction over immigration – indicated that House GOP leaders should only bring a series of committee-approved bills to the floor if the measures have the support of a substantial majority of the Republican conference. At this juncture, it appears as though a majority of House Republicans are not in favor of advancing reforms in 2014.
Five piecemeal immigration measures – four of which have been reported by the House Judiciary Committee – have sat idly since being approved by the committee last year. In contrast, the Senate cleared a comprehensive immigration bill (S 744); since Senate passage last June, Democratic leaders have urged House Republicans to act.
It should be noted that S 744, as well as one of the House immigration measures (HR 2278), includes various provisions on SCAAP. For starters, the bills would reimburse local jurisdictions for the costs of housing undocumented individuals who are accused of certain crimes – and not only convicted of such offenses, as is allowed for under the current statute. Such a change would benefit counties, which are responsible for housing pre-trial inmates. Additionally, the House bill includes a provision that would shift jurisdiction of SCAAP from the Department of Justice to the Department of Homeland Security – a concept that is supported by CSAC.
The Senate bill also includes language drafted by CSAC that would require DOJ to compensate jurisdictions for the costs of incarcerating “unknown” inmates. Unknown inmates are classified as such because they have not had prior contact with federal immigration authorities and therefore are not included in the DHS database. The change would preclude DOJ from instituting a harmful policy change that it had proposed in 2012.
On the transportation front, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee leaders announced this week that they had reached a bipartisan agreement on the broad parameters for a six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill. Under the plan, funding for highway, bridge, and transit programs would be kept at current levels. Incidentally, committee leaders did not identify a new source of funding for the new bill.
Among other goals, the committee intends to place an emphasis on improving freight transportation across the country. Additionally, committee leaders acknowledged the importance of maintaining the formulas for existing core programs, as well as focusing on policies that expand opportunities for rural areas.
The current surface transportation law (PL 112-141) expires at the end of September. Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA) expect to mark up a reauthorization bill sometime after the upcoming recess.
Finally, President Obama announced Friday, April 11 the resignation of Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius will be replaced by White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell. Burwell, who was confirmed by the Senate as OMB Director on a 96-0 vote last April, will likely have a similarly smooth path to confirmation as HHS secretary.